Recently, I led our A Northern Soul Tour through the wonderful Tohoku region of Japan, following in the footsteps of arguably its greatest poet, Matsuo Basho, who took 6 months of life to hike what became known as Oku No Hosoi Michi, the Narrow Road to the Deep North. The 1200-mile odyssey spawned prolific travel writing and poetry and highlighted this truly wondrous region of Japan.
Although the Japanese themselves are well aware of the region’s many appealing attractions, the (undiscerning) majority of foreign travel companies and travelers overlook it. That was to our advantage recently – it was our own adventure, exclusive in that we met just one Taiwanese group in 2 weeks after leaving Tokyo and heading north!
However, herein lies the sad legacy of the 2011 Great Northeastern Earthquake, which still deeply affects the golden people of Tohoku, both emotionally, economically and in their daily lives. Unfortunately, in an industry where awards are collected like pin badges, somehow validating the quality and trustworthiness of a company, the responsible tourism bandwagon is a crowded bus that every travel firm seems to claim a seat on. Some firms hold, however, suspect credentials.
Therefore, at Insidejapantours, we felt it crucial that during a 2 week trip of World Heritage Sites, Nature Trails, zen gardens, sumptuous Japanese feasts and traditional Japanese accommodation with its immaculate service, that we should drop in on one of the afflicted towns of the ensuing tsunami.
Ishinomaki is one such place – a fishing town that, for a while at least, became known to the world. Youtube satiated the voyeuristic lust for the devastating – a disaster unwinding before our very eyes, was satiated as the earth’s assertiveness over humanity was. It was hard-hitting, for some maybe even entertaining, and then it was forgotten. For the people of Ishinomaki, every day touches on that fateful event in some way, for all who survived. 4761 perished, and some 420 people are to this day unaccounted for. The eternal pain and grief that this lack of closure must cause is unimaginable. The sense of loss that this town has had to endure is immense, yet, as perhaps you can imagine, you will not meet a finer community of smiling, warm, welcoming people who can claim to have a clearer perspective on life than someone like myself.
My first visit with the group was a non-scheduled side excursion. We arrived late afternoon so the sun had already set. Although dark, I believe my group understood the reasons to be there. We grabbed 2 taxis and I asked both drivers, who were on duty on that day, to take us where they felt we should see. One driver relayed how he had been parked in the station- front taxi rank at 2:46pm, March 11, 2011, when the huge 8.9 temblor struck off the Tohoku coast. An hour later and the station area, some 3km away from the seafront was inundated with waist high water.
Perhaps the fate of this lucky driver was sealed by falling debris in the station due to the quake. He and other taxi drivers offered comfort and warmth by allowing the injured to sit in the cab until the shaking stopped. He was then involved in helping those (numbers unknown) and so was off duty, away from the coast, and therefore relatively safe.
We were driven to the seafront, peered out into the still darkness which permeated a chillingly menacing presence in the cold darkness. Then onto the famous memorial and logo board, painted just after the disaster. An eternal lantern remains lit, and flowers are regularly laid. The words Ganbarou Ishinomaki (Let’s Go Ishinomaki) are emblazoned upon timber panelling as a motivator and a 6.9metre wave height marker gives context in an area that had 1800 buildings – the majority completely destroyed.
After wracking up 60 pounds in taxi fares, we asked to be dropped in the restaurant area of town. I wanted to put a little money into the pockets of a locally-run business. A little disappointing, yet ironically of course immensely heartening was the fact that I could not find anywhere for my group on a Saturday night – all fully booked. Good to see people are eating out, socializing and enjoying each others’ company – moving on and up. Hence, with the cold and time running out, it was time to leave and head back to the city of Sendai.
For me that encounter was not enough though, and so the week after my tour finished, I made the trip back to the town to spend a day interacting and exploring, in order to put more context to everything. Partly for personal reasons, partly for work, I needed to return to talk to more people, spend a little more money and see the town in the light of day. I rented a cycle and took most of the afflicted areas in.
Next year, I hope to have Insidejapantours groups and individual travelers staying in Ishinomaki for a night – the local community will warm to you, you will bring a smile to faces, perspective on life will be gleaned, and hey, if you feel a little good about yourself – well great! Please go to Ishinomaki when you get the chance!
Here are some the few photos that I took on that moving day:
This former shop, right on the Kitakami River remains derelict and contorted, untouched since the disaster.
House and garden in ruins. On the Kitakami RIver, a mile from the seafront.
Some buildings received more renovation and maintenance than others. In the background, the manga artist, Ishinomori Shotaro-inspired Manga Museum is open for visitors, and is one of the tourist attractions of the town.
This charming little girl was playing in the park on Hiroriyama Hill with her grandparents. The sign designates the hill as an official disaster evacuation point. It saved 100s of lives as many climbed the hill to avoid the incoming mass of seawater.
For days, the local Hibi Newspaper could only inform the community by handwriting 6 large sheets of headline news and posting them at city hall and at convenience stores in the afflicted area.
I happened across Ishinomaki High School baseball team members. They were running up and down the steps of the shrine complex. These students are truly playing the game in memory of lost friends and family.
A young woman peers up to the top of the wave marker, just 500 metres from the shore. The tsunami reached 6.9 metres at this point. Kadonowaki District had pretty much all of its 1800 houses and businesses completely destroyed.
The abandoned Kashima Mikou Temple, 500metres from the shoreline
Wasteland where once was…
Heartening to see the young folks of Ishinomaki starting their own businesses. This cafe was remodeled and a new venture started after the original went out of business.
The same slogan of encouragement, 3 years on. The surrounding area remains a barren wasteland of grass and weeds.
High on Hiyoriyama Hill – this was the point from where extended footage of the disaster was shot.
The calm of the Kitakami RIver at sunset – the chaos of the disaster seems impossible to fathom on such a beautiful evening.
A Tohoku smile to touch the heart of the most hardened. This is the welcome you get in Ishinomaki!
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